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Thread: Aging and Vocal Decline

          
   
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  1. #1
    Senior Member Involved Member brianwalker's Avatar
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    Aging and Vocal Decline

    From Almaviva's interview with Matthew Polezani.

    The fact of the matter is, as your voice gets older generally, not always, it gets less beautiful.
    How true is this really? I'm not interested in the extremes here, but the general pattern of vocal change from, say, 25 to 35, 30 to 40. I searched the forums and there were no threads devoted to this topic.

    Then there's this Amazon review from Ivy Lin on Sutherland's Prima Donna album. She has an excellent blog devoted to opera and ballet, among other things.

    This album is a bittersweet experience...She became an overnight sensation, her bright, bell-like voice and seemingly perfect technique wowing everyone... Then, in 1961, something happened. Her technical wizardry remained untouched, but it was a different singer. The voice became much darker, lost all its silvery sheen, and she developed rather annoyingly 'droopy' mannerisms... For this reason listening to this album is bittersweet. Joan just wasnt the same after this.
    These sentiments show up everywhere, they're unavoidable. Obscure recordings featuring current or former stars in their relative youth are praised for the "freshness" of their voice. I've not yet listened enough to concur with this general judgment but always kept this in the back of my mind and tried to procure when possible the recordings of current and past stars in their youngest years, regardless of the general popularity of the record.

    Today I listened to parts of Act II of Parsifal from the following versions, all featuring Waltraud Meier as Kundry: Goodall's 1984 studio, Levine's 1985 Bayreuth, the 1992 Barenboim Berlin video, and the 2005 Thielemann live recording. All I will say is that this has induced in me a profound melancholy that there she made no recordings or videos as Isolde in the 80s, a melancholy almost as profound as when I found out that Knappertsbusch was slated to conduct first studio Ring but was replaced by Culshaw with Solti because Knappertsbusch was averse to retakes. I always found things like fantasy sports leagues unintelligible, but there I was, daydreaming all day about imaginary recordings. I've managed to repress all this fantasizing for a good while now but now it has returned, stronger than ever.

    The more opera history I know the more salient the irony of the fact that singers must languish in their prime in obscurity and that for many stars, in the eyes of the, and I use this word ironically, cognoscenti, the "essence" of their careers end before they really even begin. The best written and seemingly most informed reviews on Amazon point to Callas earliest live recitals as the prime of her legacy. The loudest cheers are for Moffo's recital albums from the 50s.

    Then there's pitch inflation ruining singers prematurely.

    Anyone else depressed thinking about all of this? This isn't a run of the mill Woody-Allen-I'm-thinking-about-mortality thing. The peak is just so devastatingly brief. It's like a cruel joke being played on us by the demiurge.

    Youth is wasted on the young indeed.

    Back to the original question.

    The fact of the matter is, as your voice gets older generally, not always, it gets less beautiful.
    How true is this really? As a general, universal pattern of organic decline, and not freak exceptions and sudden tragedies.

  2. #2
    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    Very true, but I bring your attention to the words "generally, not always." There are singers with long careers - contemporary examples include Renée Fleming and Plácido Domingo, past examples include Joan Sutherland, Roberta Peters. The latter at age 64 was still singing a rather beautiful Casta Diva (I mean, beautiful for a 64-year-old singer, but still):

    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

  3. #3
    Schigolch
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    The instrument of a singer is his body, and that body changes with time.

    The degree of that change, and how it affects singing, it's very, very personal. And influenced by nature, singing technique, choice of repertory,...

    Generally speaking, usually as the voice matures, top notes are more difficult to reach. This is the case for many singers, but not for all.

    Many singers will switch repertory with age, but again, not all.

    A long career it's not always better than a short one. A friend of mine uses to say that Maria Callas was on stage for ten years, but her singing will live for ever, while Plácido Domingo had been on stage for ever, and after retirement, if indeed he retires one day, his singing won't last in memory for more than ten years... Not that I necessarily agree with this particular vision (I have a better opinion about Mr. Domingo's singing ability) but I do agree with the feeling that the important thing is your legacy, and not the number of years you are singing at your peak, or close to it.

    To sing the 'soprano assoluto' way like Callas did usually have two problems: first, it's very difficult to get a good balance between the different ranges of your tessitura (and sometimes it could look like there are two or three singers instead of only one), and second, it's unlikely your career will be a long one. That was the case of Callas, but also of Giuditta Pasta's in the 19th century, or Elena Souliotis's after Callas.

    On the other hand, there are singers like Alfredo Kraus that started as a light-lyric tenor in his youth, and was still singing the same roles forty years later, with remarkable ease and similar results.

    About the exact period of 'peak' it's also different for each singer. Indeed, it could be also different for each role, in each singer. But there is not a rule that the first years are the best of a singer. Not by any means. In fact, just the opposite might be true, especially in the deeper voices: bass, baritone or dramatic mezzo.

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    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    Indeed. Alfredo Kraus is another example of voice longevity. And yes, like we've learned from some of our interviewees, the career of a bass or of a baritone takes a while to take off.

    But just look around - you'll see some energetic, fit, and healthy senior citizens, and some others who are weak and plagued by arthritis, dementia, and other chronic conditions. People age differently, so, it happens the same way to the throat and its muscles.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

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    Opera Lively Media Consultant Top Contributor Member Ann Lander (sospiro)'s Avatar
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    The more opera history I know the more salient the irony of the fact that singers must languish in their prime in obscurity and that for many stars, in the eyes of the, and I use this word ironically, cognoscenti, the "essence" of their careers end before they really even begin.
    That is such a sad statement but it must be true for many young singers.
    "The world calls them its singers and poets and artists and storytellers; but they are just people who have never forgotten the way to fairyland."
    Lucy Maud Montgomery

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    Staff Writer & Reviewer - Life-time Donor Veteran Member Jephtha's Avatar
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    I think vocal longevity is due to a combination of factors, general physical health and basic vocal technique being prime among them. I have often heard it said that, for women singers, the voice begins to change somewhere around age forty, and they often must re-think their vocal technique. Sometimes physical changes can produce irreversible results. My favorite singer, Irmgard Seefried, started out with a lovely, dark, liquid sound and a freely ringing top register. After she had her children, the voice 'dried out' somewhat with the top becoming rather 'short' (everything above G above the stave having a rather desperate quality) and, while the charm and charisma of her vocal personality continued unabated, the basic vocal quality was never what it had been. Then there are others whose vocal cords seem to have been kissed by God. Helen Donath and Edith Mathis sang with youthful freshness and vigor well into their sixties, and Erna Berger was still singing beautifully (albeit with somewhat reduced breath control) at age eighty. Perhaps it is just 'the luck of the draw'.

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